Database of States’ Statements concerning Use of Force in relation to Syria



Database of States’ Statements concerning Use of Force in relation to Syria

Image credit: UN Photo/Loey Felipe [link].


Many see armed conflict in Syria as a flashpoint for international law. The situation raises numerous unsettling questions, not least concerning normative foundations of the contemporary collective-security and human-security systems, including the following:

  • Amid recurring reports of attacks directed against civilian populations and hospitals with seeming impunity, what loss of legitimacy might law suffer?
  • May—and should—states forcibly intervene to prevent (more) chemical-weapons attacks?
  • If the government of Syria is considered unwilling or unable to obviate terrorist threats from spilling over its borders into other countries, may another state forcibly intervene to protect itself (and others), even without Syria’s consent and without an express authorization of the U.N. Security Council?

What began in Daraa in 2011 as protests escalated into armed conflict. Today, armed conflict in Syria implicates a multitude of people, organizations, states, and entities. Some are obvious, such as the civilian population, the government, and organized armed groups (including designated terrorist organizations, for example the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS). Other implicated actors might be less obvious. They include dozens of third states that have intervened or otherwise acted in relation to armed conflict in Syria; numerous intergovernmental bodies; diverse domestic, foreign, and international courts; and seemingly innumerable NGOs.

Over time, different states have adopted wide-ranging and diverse approaches to undertaking measures (or not) concerning armed conflict in Syria, whether in relation to the government, one or more armed opposition groups, or the civilian population. Especially since mid-2014, a growing number of states have undertaken military operations directed against ISIS in Syria. For at least a year-and-a-half, Russia has bolstered military strategies of the Syrian government. At least one state (the United States) has directed an operation against a Syrian military base. And, more broadly, many states provide (other) forms of support or assistance to the government of Syria, to armed opposition groups, or to the civilian population.

Against that backdrop, the Harvard Law School Program on International Law and Armed Conflict (HLS PILAC) set out to collect states’ statements made from August 2011 through November 2016 concerning use of force in relation to Syria. A primary aim of the database is to provide a comparatively broad set of reliable resources regarding states’ perspectives, with a focus on legal parameters. A premise underlying the database is that through careful documentation of diverse approaches, we can better understand those perspectives.

The intended audience of the database is legal practitioners. The database is composed of statements made on behalf of states and/or by state officials. For the most part, the database focuses on statements regarding legal parameters concerning use of force in relation to Syria. HLS PILAC does not pass judgment on whether each statement is necessarily legally salient for purposes of international law. Nor does HLS PILAC seek to determine whether a particular statement may be understood as an expression of opinio juris or an act of state practice (though it might be).

Parameters of the Database


The database is titled the “HLS PILAC Database of States’ Statements (August 2011–November 2016) concerning Use of Force in relation to Syria.” As a shorthand title, we recommend calling it the Database on States’ Statements concerning Syria (DSSS).


The DSSS is a production of HLS PILAC. Under the supervision of Senior Researcher Dustin A. Lewis, a team of researchers contributed research and translation assistance to the DSSS: Thomas Ewing, Lukas Hafner, Katie King, Francesco Romani, Leah Saris, and Jillian Ventura. HLS PILAC is grateful for research support from the Harvard Law School Library; for translation assistance provided by Merel Ekelhof; and for feedback from Scott Anderson.

Versions and Formats

Version 1.03 of the DSSS is being released in May 2017. If changes are made to the database, subsequent versions will be updated as different versions. The DSSS is being released in May 2017 in the following formats (see below for a link to each version):

  • As an Excel spreadsheet;
  • As a PDF;
  • As a Google spreadsheet; and
  • As a table (generated through a Google spreadsheet) within a page on the HLS PILAC website.

The content of the database is the same for each format.


HLS PILAC is releasing the DSSS under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license.

Database Fields

The database includes the following fields:

  • State(s) and/or entity(ies): The state, or states, and/or the entity, or entities, making the relevant statement(s).
  • Date: The date on which the statement was made or on which a report of the statement was published. We included statements made from August 2011 through November 2016. Those dates are admittedly somewhat arbitrary. We would have included a larger set of dates if we had more resources and time. NB: One statement—the Statement by Lieutenant Colonel Jorge Manuel Cotorruelo of the Spanish Military—is associated with a month (and year) but not with a specific date because it appeared in a monthly periodical and did not have a specific date attached to the statement.
  • Attribution indicia: Information concerning who or what made the statement and in what context. NB: Each document submitted by U.N. member states reporting measures taken in the exercise of the right of self-defense under Article 51 of the U.N. Charter is noted in hard brackets as an “[Article 51 Letter].”
  • Statement excerpt or translation in English: Verbatim excerpts of statements originally made in English or translations in English of statements not originally made in English. HLS PILAC researchers searched U.N. documents, news reports, and other resources to find relevant statements. The database includes statements originally made not only in English but also in Dutch, French, German, Norwegian, Russian, and Spanish. With respect to statements not originally made in English, where an official (or quasi-official) translation into English was available, we used that translation; where an official (or quasi-official) translation into English was not available, HLS PILAC researchers provided an informal translation.
  • Statement excerpt where the original statement or the corresponding official translation was not made in English: Excerpts of statements not originally made in English.
  • The origin URL(s): The web address(es) of the original statement(s).
  • Permanent link(s): Perma.cc links (produced by HLS PILAC researchers) of the original web address(es) of the original statement(s).

Limitations of the Database

The research team set out to include as many pertinent statements as feasible. Nonetheless, the database is not comprehensive. A comprehensive database would also include (among other things) states’ statements originally made in Arabic, Chinese, Farsi, Hebrew, Turkish, and many other languages. Moreover, as with all translation exercises, the use of unofficial translations and brackets to edit original quotations carries the risk of inadvertently changing the intended meaning. HLS PILAC researchers have worked to minimize these concerns.

Other limitations to the database pertain to the breadth of the inquiry and its temporal end-point. First, the breadth of the database inquiry—that is, which states have made statements (including through state officials) that might pertain to the threat or use of force in relation to Syria—is a somewhat broad mandate. While the DSSS includes all relevant statements found by HLS PILAC researchers, it does not purport to contain every statement that would fit the search parameters. Additionally, researchers had access only to public statements.

Second, as noted, the database includes only those statements made from August 2011 through November 2016. The database thus does not encompass statements made subsequently, even though many possibly relevant statements have been made since November 2016. Statements concerning the missile attack by the United States against the Shayrat Air Base in early April 2017 constitute but one example.

Nonetheless, we hope that the statements in the DSSS will be useful in helping to inform the context and development (if any) of the position(s) of states over time in relation to this matter of international concern.


We welcome critical feedback on the DSSS. We are particularly interested in ascertaining ways to make the database more useful for practitioners and researchers. In that connection, please send updates, emendations, suggestions, and other comments to pilac@law.harvard.edu with “DSSS” in the subject-line of the e-mail.


—Write up by Jillian Ventura and Dustin A. Lewis, May 2017






Image credit: UN Photo/Loey Felipe [link].

Database Formats